Keeping COVID from Nursing Homes’ Doors

Employees Test Positive at Seven Facilities

Like other nursing homes in the county, Samarkand (above) checks its employees for COVID-19 symptom; so far, one has tested positive. | Credit: Courtesy

Atterdag Village succeeded in stopping COVID-19 at the door, literally. An employee who arrived to work last week showed no symptoms of coronavirus, but the screening all staff go through before entering the premises ​— ​home to 160 residents ​— ​showed the assisted-care worker had a slightly elevated temperature. She was sent home and later tested positive for the virus. So far, no other staff or residents have had symptoms or tested positive, said Debbie Knight, Atterdag’s director of marketing.

The Solvang retirement community is among seven in Santa Barbara County of which an employee or resident has tested positive for COVID-19. Goleta’s Maravilla, a sprawling facility that covers 20 acres, wasn’t so lucky, as a resident on hospice was reportedly infected by a caregiver, who worked for a third-party hospice provider. The positive test came back after he died, however, and his doctor attributed his death to non-COVID reasons reasons, though the Public Health Department has listed it as the third COVID-related death in the county.

Like prisons, the group-care nature of nursing homes makes their residents dependent on employees for meals, housekeeping, activities, and, in the case of hospice, essential personal care. Each facility where a staff member responded to reporters᾿ calls had increased worker scrutiny and education, most had asked visitors to stay away, and all were clothing employees in masks and gowns when they had close contact with residents, as during hospice or skilled-nursing care.

The hospice caregiver at Maravilla, who also worked privately tending to people near death, was gloved and gowned while working, said Paige Batson, County Public Health’s deputy director for community health. Also, every resident she came into contact with was tested, a statement from Maravilla revealed, as were the employees she came into contact with on the day before she came down with COVID-19. No one else tested positive.

The same was true at Buena Vista Care Center. The skilled nursing facility had one COVID-positive employee who last worked there on April 8 before showing symptoms three days later, said Executive Director Cindy Jordan. No other employees or residents have tested positive.

While the genetic virus testing implemented by the Public Health Department is good for gaining a short-term understanding of whether a person has coronavirus, Batson pointed out, a negative result only indicates the individual doesn’t have it at that point in time. “You can test negative today and have no symptoms, but when you test again …,” she trailed off, indicating how the virus insinuates itself easily into the cells lining the nasal walls, where they multiply before heading south to the lungs.

COVID-19’s ability to spread quickly and lurk unseen has eluded the increased care taken at nursing homes, including the Marian Hospital–operated Marian Extended Care in Santa Maria and the Lompoc Skilled Nursing & Rehabilitation Center. Neither was able to respond to reporter questions before press deadline, but each was listed in the state database of nursing facilities with at least one employee who tested positive.

Lompoc Valley Medical Center operates a skilled nursing and rehab, the Comprehensive Care Center. Its CEO, Steve Popkin, reported that one employee there had tested positive and that the individual had recovered.

A seventh case occurred at Santa Barbara’s storied Samarkand, which was built in 1915 by Prynce Hopkins as the new site of Boyland school for boys and became a retirement community in 1955. Now housing about 375 people, Samarkand checks its employees as do the other facilities, though one employee developed a fever while working and ended up testing positive for COVID-19. She had worked only at one resident’s apartment that day, as luck would have it, and no residents or other employees became infected.

Atterdag Village had started screening visitors and implementing increased hygiene measures in early March, said Debbie Knight. She credited her director, Chris Parker, with recognizing the threat quickly and closing the campus to visitors in mid-March. “Even a seasonal flu can be detrimental to our residents,” Knight said. “And this was way beyond the normal flu, so we took much more drastic measures.”

Clarification: This story noted on April 24 that the caregiver at Maravilla worked for a third-party hospice provider and was not a Maravilla employee.

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